The Last American Sin

The Last American Sin November 14, 2011

Watching the Penn State fiasco shake out last week awoke to my consciousness something that stirs every time we witness—or rather, hear about in the media—a sexual abuse scandal that involves children. Facebook and the blogosphere lit up with indignation from all corners. Penn State students who rallied in support of Coach Paterno were lumped in with him in Americans’ collective disgust. Simply put, there are to be no viable defenses of Penn State, its administration, or its football staff. Why? Because Jerry Sandusky committed the last American sin. I’m calling it that because I can think of no other act that can resonate so negatively with virtually all Americans. Murder is too localized. We’re no longer patriotic enough to get worked up over treason. So far as I can tell, sexual acts with children are the only egregious acts—sins, as it were—from which the vast majority of Americans still noticeably recoil, regardless of religion, race, gender, age, or politics. It’s a
strangely uniting moment when something like it happens.

What exactly is it about child molestation that uniquely unites Americans in outrage?

This is where it gets murky. Many, I suspect, would say something about the long-term emotional ramifications of such acts. Trust me—the data I’m aware of document that pronounced consequences exist. (The mother of an acquaintance of mine who took his own life a decade after such abuse called it “soul murder.”) But talk of consequences—the things that typically happen in the wake of something—doesn’t amply reflect our conviction that the act is wrong-in-itself (which it is).

Others speak of a loss of innocence—whatever that means. While I think I get it, it’s pretty vague, and it implies that at some point in time the rest of us apparently lose our innocence, too, though typically in far-less traumatic manners. (Indeed, when I assigned Premarital Sex in America to my undergraduates last Spring, one student complained of something similar after reading it. I felt a bit bad about that, actually.) I sense that “loss of innocence” refers to the premature and uninvited introduction of the sexual. To be sure, this has detrimental consequences for “normal” sexual development, but Americans are no longer on the same page about what normal sexual development and sexual behavior ought to look like. (And we’re back to talking about consequences.)

There is unequal power at work in child molestation, but unequal power by itself
isn’t inherently wrong, and is a normal experience in human social life. Nevertheless,
in no shortage of adults’ own (legal) sexual relationships, there is unequal power at work. And in the sexual market at large, power is not equally distributed among men and women. But a child is not an adult, and the power imbalance here is certainly profound, and used to ill effect.

There is the underage sex part of this, but it doesn’t seem to me that Americans—including many Christians—sufficiently problematize the sexualization of youth today. (Ever heard of Glee?) On the contrary, Americans sexualize early adolescents like never before, with the caveat that you may not legally touch them—sexually, that is—until they’ve arrived at the age of (and offered their) consent, itself a somewhat-arbitrary legal determination made by states (which differ among themselves on what that age ought to be).

Thus Americans are united in recognizing that child molestation is wrong—as they ought—but probably couldn’t exactly agree on the various reasons for why it is wrong. This may be, in part, because dignity is a missing element in our discourse around human relationships, including sexual ones. (In his book on human personhood, Christian Smith identifies dignity as “an inherent worth of immeasurable value that is deserving of certain morally appropriate responses.”) We recognize that people who sexually prey on children—as well as those that fail to do everything in their power to stop them, even to their own hurt—ignore their victims’ (as well as their own) dignity.

But there are shades of gray here—things are not just black and white—as our blog title connotes. I don’t detect much concern for dignity in the accounts I’m hearing from young adults about their own sexual decision-making, legal though it is. Smith asserts that it’s not as if dignity no longer exists when we wish it not to—it must and it does. The first line of the Catechism’s section on Life in Christ is this: “Christian, recognize your dignity…” (And yes, I recognize the irony of quoting from a Catholic document here.) But we’re reticent to speak of dignity when discussing sexuality, because to do so would indict not only all adult-child sexual  relationships—as they ought—but also sexual relationships wherein adults treat other adults not as persons but as things.  A person—including a spouse—ought never to be treated as a functional object. Because children are more vulnerable, their dignity is more apt to be ignored and abused, than, say, the dignity of an adult. Because we recognize that in the Penn State case, our ire is understandably provoked.

While the age of consent is a social construction (but not a fiction)—something subject to change, to law, and to popular opinion—dignity is not. Unfortunately, dignity sounds weak, whereas the law sounds like something strong and uniting. We have it backwards. Most Americans naturally recoil from the thought of a 16-year-old having sex with a 50-year-old, legal though it may be. This seems to me the reason why the State of Texas arrested oodles of FLDS members in El Dorado back in 2008, only to watch the cases legally collapse. It offends the dignity inherent in our personhood and in our relationships. This can be ascertained by people of sound mind, and is not itself the property of a religion or philosophy. People naturally recoil, as they should, when human dignity is ignored. That impulse to recoil when dignity is ignored—legally or not—is rooted in human personhood and reality, and this is the reason why Americans’ sorrow over offended dignity, if we’re honest, shouldn’t stop at egregious illegal acts like this one. But it typically does.

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